Local governments everywhere can learn a lesson from the debacle that Bisbee is dealing with regarding its wastewater treatment plant. Wednesday the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed a decision by Cochise County Superior Court Judge Laura Cardinal and ordered the Bisbee City Council to hear an administrative appeal initiated more than two years ago by residents Jeffery Harris and Donna Pulling.
Council members shrugged off questions raised by the pair in November 2018 regarding a multi-million dollar contract with Jacobs, an international environmental services firm. Bisbee needed the company to repair and stabilize its wastewater treatment plant after state officials threatened to close the facility for failure to report bacterial tests from October to December 2017.
Ms. Pulling and Mr. Harris are familiar characters to city officials. Both can be considered assertive council “watchdogs,” who frequently seek to address concerns about policies and procedures. In addition to questioning the Jacobs contract, Ms. Pulling was previously successful in petitioning the Arizona Attorney General to reprimand the Bisbee Council for its failure to abide by the state’s Open Meeting Law.
For those familiar with city and county governments, it’s not unusual to see eye-rolling by officials and even fellow constituents when watchdogs raise technical questions, sometimes involving the minutia of contracts, policies, procedures and other “routine” matters.
For Mr. Harris and Ms. Pulling, this was a case of the Bisbee Council, the city attorney and the city manager throwing out city code that restricted contracting with Jacobs for multiple years, without providing for how the contract would be funded. Court records show the Jacobs contract is expected to cost the city $3 million to $4 million, but just days after it was approved, Harris and Pulling filed their protest with then-City Manager Robert Smith. Among their complaints was that the city council failed to demonstrate it had funds to cover the first year’s $730,000 cost and that the cost for each of the remaining four years would have to be negotiated in the future.
Meanwhile Bisbee went full steam ahead to address its urgent need for repair its wastewater treatment plant.
That might have been the end of the dispute, if Mr. Harris had not filed a petition for special action to the Superior Court, where Bisbee prevailed when the case reached Cardinal’s courtroom. The judge dismissed the citizen action, siding with the argument by the city’s insurer that residents, even taxpayers, do not have legal standing to challenge the contract.
Except they did.
Mr. Harris and Ms. Pulling can take satisfaction that the state’s Court of Appeals has ordered that the city finally “hear and decide” the contract protest at an upcoming public council meeting. Bisbee must also reimburse Harris the costs for his appeal.
The lesson for other local governments is clear. Don’t be too quick to disregard the concerns voiced by “watchdog” citizens who may aggravate, but may be raising a valid issue.
It’s often watchdogs who keep local government on the straight and narrow.